Some brought their kids, who they said had been sickened by mold and pest infestations in their military housing -- something they say has been ignored or begrudgingly addressed with sloppy maintenance by indifferent property managers.
Others brought nondisclosure agreements private housing companies wanted them to sign before they would listen to complaints.
They came from Fort Benning, Georgia; Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma; the Army's Presidio of Monterey, California; Dover Air Force Base, Delaware; Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia; and other installations to a Senate hearing room Tuesday on the off chance of telling their stories to top leadership.
The occasion was a rare gathering of all the service chiefs and secretaries to testify at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the crisis in the construction and maintenance of privatized housing on military installations nationwide.
Afterward, several of the chiefs and secretaries lingered and heard the families explain their unwanted familiarity with "Stachybotrys," a genus of toxic black mold that forms on water-damaged surfaces and can be inhaled.
"We were all sick," Janna Driver, whose husband is now retired from the Air Force, said of the persistent mold in their former home at Tinker. Their daughter was hospitalized four times, Driver said, and she herself suffered bouts of dizziness and nosebleeds.
She consulted a pediatric pulmonologist for her daughter, who told her, "I'll tell you right now your house is killing your daughter," Driver said, adding that they went repeatedly to Balfour Realty, the property owner, to complain.
"They just plain don't care," she said.
Samantha Keller, whose husband is a Marine major, said she also battled mold and also water damage that rotted away wooden studs in the wall at their Presidio of Monterey home. The property manager wanted her to sign a nondisclosure agreement before agreeing to a cleanup, she said.
"We refused," and the family has since moved to Camp Pendleton, California, Keller said.
Air Force Master Sgt. Michael Johnson said his family had to move to hotels four times in 18 months while stationed at Dover Air Force Base because of water damage and mold.
"Every time, they refused to test for air quality" after discovering mold, Johnson's wife, Kelly, said of the property managers. "That's just the way it's been."
Heather Hall, who drove to the hearing from Fort Benning, said she faced a range of issues at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where her husband was previously based. She added that the same problems with unfulfilled work orders followed the family to Benning.
Her husband is in the Special Forces and assigned to one of the Security Force Assistance Brigades, the highly trained units for assisting and advising local partner forces, but the family has decided to leave the military rather than continuing to deal with unresponsive property managers, Hall said.
"We're just not happy," she said. "He's going to retire."
Hall said it is her belief that Army leadership is falling short in oversight of the private housing companies. "They're paying them; they need to be held accountable," she said.
Shannon Razsadin, executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network, who attended the hearing, said she was encouraged by the pledges of corrective action from the service chiefs and secretaries, but added, "Families are still living in dangerous homes."
"The families are being so brave," but the stress on them "just really erodes trust" in the military as an institution, she said.
Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, who stayed long after the hearing to listen to the families, told reporters that the problems stem from "an abdication of leadership over the last 10 or 15 years because we outsourced it" to the private companies.
"We didn't have an aggressive management approach" in dealing with the firms, he said.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct details of the Keller family's story.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.